As we spend more weeks separated from family and friends in isolation, the idea that we are “all in this together” is of some comfort. The virus has even been called the “great equaliser” – meaning that it shows no respect for factors like power, authority, nationality or race. But as we now know, there is nothing equal about the toll being inflicted by the global health crisis.
Research has shown a dramatic divergence in the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Black people are more than four times more likely to die from COVID-19 in the UK than white people, ONS data has shown. All over the world – in China, Italy, the United States and Australia – many more men than women are dying from COVID-19.
But the pandemic isn’t just a health crisis, it is an economic one too. Millions of people have been furloughed or made redundant – and data shows the economic fallout of coronavirus is affecting women more severely than men.
In previous recessions, such as the global financial crisis in 2008, men have faced a greater risk of unemployment than women. This is, in part, because the sectors that usually struggle during downturns, such as construction, are dominated by men.
This time around, things are different. The closures to prevent the spread of coronavirus have impacted different sectors and industries such as the retail and restaurant industries – sectors predominantly staffed by women.
Women are a third more likely to work in a sector that is now shut down than men, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found. One in six female employees were in such sectors, compared with one in seven men.
Women are also more likely than men to work in low-paid sectors such as care and leisure – sectors hit hard by the current crisis. According to the IFS data, low earners are seven times as likely as high earners to have worked in a sector that is now shut.
“Women are more likely to be working in low paid work, which has historically been considered low skilled, for example care work and retail,” says Kate Sang, a professor of gender and employment studies at Heriot-Watt University. “It is simply not possible to work from home and they may find it harder to remain in paid employment.”
And with more women working in caring roles, they have found themselves at the frontline of the health catastrophe. Women make up the majority of workers in the health and social care sector – around 70% in 104 countries analysed by the World Health Organization (WHO). They also face the added burden of unpaid care work as, globally, women perform 76.2% of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three-times as much as men. In Asia and the Pacific, that figure rises to 80%.
As health systems become stretched, many people with COVID-19 will need to be cared for at home, adding to women’s overall load, as well as putting them at greater risk of becoming infected.
“We know that women are more likely to be exposed to coronavirus through the course of their work,” Sang says. “Added to this, we see women still undertaking the majority of unpaid domestic labour including childcare, care for parents and disabled or ill family members.
“This care work is very hard to balance with paid employment and so it's likely we will see more women be forced out of the labour market, particularly at a time where we are facing recession.”
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To prevent coronavirus from spreading further, the closure of schools and nurseries was essential. But the mass shut down has left many working parents with little choice but to take time off or to try to work from home, while caring for their kids. The closure of schools hits women particularly hard because much of the responsibility for childcare still falls on them.
“We already know from some sectors that women are more likely to be doing the homeschooling,” Sang says. “We may see more women being able to return to work, but again, this depends on the nature of the work and what sort of hours we see in school or nursery openings.
“What if we see different days of the week for different age groups? This would be very difficult, or impossible, to balance with paid work,” she adds. “Since women still do most of the childcare we are unlikely to see equality in how this detriment is shared between men and women. We may see implications on careers.”
Crucially, Sang adds, the current crisis may well exacerbate disparities that already pose a problem for women in the workplace.
“We need employers and the government to be aware of these risks and to work with organisations such as trade unions to find ways forward that allow the economy to recover while working to overcome gender inequalities at work,” she adds.